The importance of assessment in professional fields

       The State of Iowa has recently floated the idea of creating a “diploma privilege” for graduates of its law schools (Rodgers, Des Moines Register, 2014, Jan. 11, accessed Jan. 27, 2014 at http://www.desmoinesregister.com/20140112/Register-Exclusive-group-weighs-ditiching-bar-exam?odyssey=top%/Ctopnews%7Cfrontpage&click_check=1). Similar to a practice already in place in the State of Wisconsin, graduates of Iowa’s law school would, under this proposal, be allowed to immediately practice within the State of Iowa upon graduation from law school. particular licensing exam needs to be given in the first place before professional authority can be conferred. Should

     It might be appropriate to ask why a we just assume that students who graduate from professional schools have the competency to practice whatever particular occupation they hold? Does the risk and/or importance factor of certain occupations call for more scrutiny?

     The bar exam is one type of examination typically given to individuals to measure an individual’s competency within the field. The medical fields typically have exams, many fields related to financial concerns have exams, and teaching has one (although one that is sometimes scrutinized see Ripley, 2013). These are just to name a few fields that require passing exams in order to practice. Exams are meant to be gatekeepers to ensure competency within the profession. It may not be the only predictor, but it is the one traditionally assumed to work best.

      The fact is that there are students who graduate from professional programs who do not pass their required examinations. Perhaps that individual may be competent enough, but the examination does not necessarily indicate that. Certainly, there are reasons why a potential member of a profession may not perform up to par on an examination on a particular day, but arguably it is important to ensure competency and the only way to measure that is through assessment. Assessment is not perfect, but a well written examination will provide a good measure of who may prove competent or not. Those who cannot prove their accuracy (given reasonable accommodations when needed) have failed to provide that extra guarantee of competency.

     Some argue also that certain professions should be given more scrutiny. For example, jobs that require control over finances, other fiscal interest, health, or life and liberty may require significant scrutiny. Ripley (2013) would add K-12 teachers to this list, arguing that standards for teacher licensing in the United States do not provide a difficult enough test to screen out competent teachers from those who “want” to be a teacher and are able to obtain the appropriate degree. Ripley would have these teachers be content experts and be evaluated for teaching skills as well. Jobs with significant influence over other people require a significant amount of competency and skill and should not necessarily be taken lightly.

      These examinations also provide an important additional gatekeeper in managing the size of professions. Arguably, it provides one (although perhaps imperfect) way of screening out those individuals who may be incompetent, thereby reducing the potential size of the workforce. Testing, when done well, reduces the workforce to the people deemed most competent.

       One advantage, however, to waiving testing would be if it encouraged institutions of higher learning to become better at teaching and measuring skills for competency and become better predictors of competency (and perhaps more responsible about admissions). By doing so, society would be returning trust to institutions of higher learning to do the right thing. This is not insignificant not only in what it represents, but in the kind of trust and responsibility that would need to exist.

      Testing, when done right, should be an important way of screening out potential incompetent individuals from professions which require a certain degree of competency. No system is perfect, but its predictive value can be very significant.

      One final note, I see professional assessment as being potentially distinct from assessment in K-12 schools. I will be writing more about this particular kind of assessment in next week’s post.

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